Code breaker takes on faster data challenge
It’s all about speed and accuracy for Professor Emanuele Viterbo – faster information transfer with fewer errors or information losses. His creative approach to coding is proving invaluable in improving the future of wired and wireless communication networks. As leader of the new Software Defined Telecommunications Laboratory at Monash University, one of Emanuele’s latest challenges is ‘cognitive radio’. The aim is to develop smart wireless devices that can access unused bandwidth in existing communication networks – be they cable, optical or wireless.
‘It would mean, for example, that a mobile phone could call another mobile phone in the same building by accessing radio bandwidth or wi-fi in the building, rather than connecting to the cellular network,’ he says.His research sits under the umbrella of information theory. The ultimate objective is to take the speed of communication as close as possible to the theoretical ‘ultimate limit’. This is the maximum speed at which data can be transferred without error. Emanuele says that in reality this limit is unattainable, but worldwide research efforts bring us at least closer to it, year by year.
‘You design codes that keep your error probability as low as possible,’ he explains. Errors in image files should not be detectable to the naked eye. In sound files they should be unheard. In computers the error rate should be almost nil, as a missing bit or two of information can stop a program from running. He says working on these codes brings him into collaborations with pure mathematicians, who delve more deeply into complex, conceptual maths than even he does. It gives them an opportunity to put their theories into practical applications. The Monash telecommunications lab will also be a testing ground for new hardware. Special computers in the laboratory will be capable of ‘pretending’ to be several different communication devices – depending on what the software tells it to be.
For example, a computer could act as if it were a new mobile phone, giving the designer a chance to see how the phone’s signalling would work – even before the prototype has been built. ‘It makes it very easy to test new algorithms, new transmission schemes, new network schemes,’ Emanuele says. Other uses for the lab include research into radar and defence applications, powerline communications and underground communications for mining.
Emanuele established his international reputation through two major radio communication breakthroughs that have already been incorporated into new technologies. In 2010 these earned him the highest honour from his peers internationally; he was awarded a fellowship to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE). It is a success he did not foresee when he stumbled on to this career path during a two-year stint at the European Patent Office in the early 1990s, after finishing his bachelor degree. ‘I would see all these nice ideas – or not-so-nice ideas – in telecommunications but then I couldn’t really go and dig into improving them, or think about the application,’ he says. Frustrated by the restrictions of the patent office, he returned to university to develop his own ideas through a PhD.
Emanuele says that in a sense coding runs in his blood. His great-great uncle, an amateur Egyptologist, developed his own alphabet that he used to write a 355-page memoir of late 19th century life. Family members and hired experts all failed to crack the code in almost a century of trying. But in 1997, Emanuele spent three months cracking and translating the 250-symbol code, revealing intimate details of his forebear’s private life.